Here at Tattle we believe that the voices behind the characters we love don’t get nearly enough credit. We love the annual Audies gala and eagerly anticipate the nominees and winners each year, but the attendees are largely from the industry and while we think it is wonderful and right to award the best in the business, awards acknowledge only the final, finished product, not all the work and years of training that went into it. We can’t give out awards or throw lavish events, but we can simply talk to narrators about their work and the medium they love. Here at Tattle, we will be interviewing narrators to shine a light on the real blood, sweat, and tears that go into the audiobooks we love.
To kick us off, I talked with the charming Tavia Gilbert, who has narrated over 250 audiobooks in all genres. To start with, we talked in general about narrating, how to get started in the audiobook world, and what narrating has taught her about writing. Check back later this week for Part 2, where we dig into specific projects she’s loved.
Let’s start with something fun and easy first: what are you listening to these days?
I just finished listening to The Fault in Our Stars, narrated by Kate Rudd.
Oh, I did, too!
Oh my goodness, she did just an amazing job! She was perfectly cast for it and it was beautifully directed by Laura Grafton from Brilliance [Audio], and it made me cry, and I learned from listening to her. It was just a very beautiful performance. Before that I had just finished listening to Call the Midwife, that Nicola Barber narrated, and she was fantastic. I’m a huge fan of the show, so it was great to listen to the book.
That’s on my list. I’m a big fan of the show, as well.
They did a fabulous job with the show, I found, because it follows the book very, very closely, so there were stories that I recognized from the television show that were in the narrative, and it was great. Nicola Barber is a fantastic narrator and I think unsung.
How did you come to audiobooks, as a listener?
I love telling this story! I was an acting student in Seattle and I was very, very passionate about the voice training that I was receiving. I loved it. And I was driving from Seattle to Idaho to visit my family and I thought, well, I have a seven or eight hour drive, I’m going to swing by the library and pick out an audiobook. I picked out a book that was written by Joanna Trollope and put it in my car’s cassette player, my Dodge Neon cassette player, and drove out of Seattle. I heard Davina Porter’s voice telling me this story and my eyes filled with tears, and I just felt overwhelmed by the emotion of listening to this incredible voice tell me this beautiful story. And I thought, I want to do that! I want to narrate audiobooks. I was so moved by it. Davina Porter is, I think, one of the most glorious narrators in the world. So for her to be the first voice I ever heard on an audiobook is very significant because she’s so expert and so compassionate.
Walk us through the recording process, from when you are first approached about a project to completion.
The email hits your inbox saying, “New project for you,” or “We’ve got a book for you,” and your heart does a little skip, especially if you’ve had a little bit of a quiet run and you think, oh I’m never going to record in this town again. Everything is done, at least in my audiobook world, digitally. So the scripts are sent over by the publisher in PDF form to my email and I download the script to my iPad. … I read the script and I mark unfamiliar vocabulary. … If it’s fiction, I am marking the various characters in one color highlighter on my iPad, and then in another color, things like from where they originate, so I can capture any dialect information. Or if it says, ‘He spoke in a gravelly baritone,’ I want to know that, so that I can take that into consideration as I’m creating the character. I mark everything that gives me cues in the moment of performance. … I want to make everything as true to the scene that the author has written as possible. So I’m reading the book through and preparing. I wish that I had time to read the book through just for pleasure and to soak in the story, and then read it through again to prepare the script, but I really have to do those things at once. It can be a little bit of a split focus.
But then in the booth, when I’m recording, I’m also splitting my focus. I’m the narrator in the moment creating a performance, and self-directing for the most part. I do work in studios with directors, and that’s always a luxurious and ideal circumstance, to work with a great director. But for the most part I’m self-directing, trying to keep in mind the arc of the book, the arc of the scene, the arc of the chapter, pacing, consistency, technical concerns, like am I getting too loud, am I too close to the mic, am I rushing, is my diction clean enough without being precise and too precious that the listener will be aware of an actor acting. All of those things, and I’m engineering my work on ProTools on the computer, so when I record, [if] I make a mistake, I stop, I back up the recording and I correct the mistake, and I continue on. So it’s a lot of split focus from the moment you get the script, on, and a lot of responsibility, but I love it.
Yeah, that sounds like a lot to keep track of.
Yeah, and it’s a steep learning curve. But I’m really lucky because I started in audiobooks with a lot of voice training and a lot of passion, and I think I was wise enough to realize that I couldn’t do all that by myself in the beginning, and be a great performer. So I hired a director out of pocket for the first 18 books I did. So my first year and a half in audiobooks, I was making very, very little money because I was investing in my training, until I finally got to the point that I felt I had practiced enough and had enough skill to do it without oversight. … It’s an interesting process to get into this industry.
How long do you typically have from when you get the script to when it’s due?
Sometimes I might get the script six weeks before it’s due. It’s nice to have a chance to space it out. But sometimes I’ve had a book come to me on a Monday and they need it done on Friday. Those are very rare but then you jump in and you get it done. In that case I read a hundred pages and recorded the hundred pages the following day and then that night read another hundred pages and recorded the next hundred. I certainly don’t want to work that way all the time but it’s doable, and a professional, expert voice actor has the skill necessary to work at that pace and make something great. But really, the longer the better.
I get this when I talk about my job, so I’m sure that you get it much more than I do. When you tell people what you do and they say, “Oh, I’d love to be an audiobook narrator! I just think it would be so relaxing to get paid to read.” What do you say?
Well, I laugh. It’s a very demanding, demanding job. It’s physically—even though you’re sitting and recording—it’s physically fatiguing, with the voice, and you must be relaxed in your diaphragm, head, neck, shoulders, arms, hands, back. You have to be relaxed but those parts of your body also need to be engaged in creating consistent and varied sound. On a pretty laid back day, I may read for four hours in the afternoon. But sometimes if I’m on deadline and I have a huge queue of work, I’ve recorded 10 hours. That’s unusual, I like to keep it to 6-8 at the most, but I’ll do what I need to do to get the work done on time. So it’s fatiguing, you need stamina. It’s not a relaxed, have fun and read books for a living job, exactly. … In the first early years it was incredibly difficult, and very, very stressful. In the world of audiobooks, you’re not getting feedback from someone. So you send your work out into the world and the way you knew if you were successful was if you got another project, not because somebody was saying, “Oh, here’s what you did well, here’s what you need to improve on.” You had no idea. That’s why I hired a director, to hear in the moment, “Go back, do that again, try this.” So it’s an isolated job for the most part, physically demanding, and intellectually fatiguing. You have to stay present with the material moment to moment to moment. And like a reader may find that they’ve read a page but their mind has wandered, you can’t do that as a narrator. So you have to be intellectually, mentally focused on the material each moment. And that’s a fatiguing thing. I encourage people who want to do it to read aloud for an hour for three weeks—this is not my test, this is Sean Allen Pratt’s test. Read aloud for an hour a night for three weeks in a row, in a closet by yourself, going back and correcting every mistake you make, and being precise about it, and then see if you really want to do it.
That’s good advice. That’s what I’ll start telling people. On that same note, how do people get started in this business?
Attending the Audiobook Publishers Association Conference in New York in May is a good way to get to know the industry, get to know who’s who, understand a little bit about the culture. It’s a very small industry. Even though it’s growing rapidly, it’s still a relationships-based, person-to-person business. Listen and listen and listen and listen to audiobooks, of different genders, different genres, different styles, to understand what’s being produced and what the sound is. When I talk to people who are interested, I say you have to listen long enough, to enough material, that you can stop being swept away and entertained by the story, and start to discern the techniques behind the performance. It takes a while to train your ear to listen underneath the entertainment value or the enrichment value. You’re listening to how is the actor handling character voices of the opposite gender, how are they handling a book that has imagery and might be a visual reference, how do you translate that into an audio description. All sorts of challenges, so listening voraciously is key. Making relationships with people who can hire you. Getting coaching, individual, private coaching, even if you’ve been on stage or on film, and you have some acting background and you know how to act in that genre, understanding this is a completely different genre of acting work that has very different needs and requirements. So getting coaching so that you can create what’s needed for this specific genre of acting work, that’s vital. And then making a demo and sending it around to publishers and trying to get work.
You mentioned that you’ve had professional voice training. I hear that phrase a lot but what’s actually entailed in that?
My 4-year BFA program started on the first day with voice training and we had voice training until our graduating last breath. So for four years I rigorously trained my voice and that was about relaxation, identifying idiosyncratic vocal habits. We all have them. I was from the desert of Idaho, so I had regionalisms in my voice that I’d never considered before. … How do you relax your jaw? Our jaws in America, and probably in the West, are really tight. How do you speak with air that flows through your diaphragm, and through all of the places in your physical system that need to make sound, with resonance that will carry through to the back of the audience when you’re on stage? Or how do you make a sound that’s very quiet and powerful behind the mic? … The voice reveals so much about a person. Tension, fear, insecurity, confidence, power, love, lust. All of those things are revealed vocally. So knowing that and then having your voice become an instrument, so that you use it like you would play a musical instrument, that’s what voice training is about.
That sounds way too intense for me.
It is intense. And it’s not just physically intense, it’s very emotionally intense. When you start to relax and use your voice as an instrument and get to know it, it can be very, very emotionally powerful.
You earned your MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. What has narrating taught you about writing?
Well I’ve recorded so many things … that I’ve had a chance to spend time with all sorts of material. You can tell when you’re narrating something really masterful. There is such an open heart behind work that is sublimely written. I don’t want people to translate that into sublime writers are perfect and flawless people, in fact they’re not. But I think they have compassion for the world around them. They’re interested in observing the world and the truth of the world. Whether that reveals their own weaknesses, flaws, and failings, or the weaknesses, flaws, and failings of other people, they’re willing to be honest and truthful about it. But there’s a compassion. There’s a reverence about life. … To me, sublime writing has as many reasons that makes it uniquely beautiful as there are unique reasons that make bad writing bad, but sublime writing has in common compassion, and of service, and presence in the true experience of a life lived. And I’m always so grateful when I get to work with gorgeous writing because it makes me a better writer, it makes me a better person. For the most part, beautiful writing is very easy to narrate. There are exceptions to that, if it’s a stylistic thing. But bad writing is really hard to narrate, really hard. And that’s not just an emotional reaction, like oh, I’d much rather narrate this than something terrible. It flows. And I think that’s often because expert writers read their work aloud. They’re not just keeping it on the page, they want to hear how it sounds to the ear. I’m humbled because … to look at a book that’s a work of art, a book is a work of art. It’s a sculpture or a painting, but it’s with words on a page. And looking at that white page and thinking, I’m going to begin, I’m beginning something, and I’m going to make a piece of art out of words, it’s just daunting. Writing is the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It’s so, so hard.